If I Be Lifted Up
The Story of Nicodemus
Special Note: This is a special sermon for me. On Friday evenings I would visit my 91 year old mother who was suffering from end stage Alzheimer’s disease and have sundown worship with her. Usually I would read a passage out of the Bible, or read out of one of her favorite books and once in a while practice an upcoming sermon. Even with Alzheimer’s she was my best critic. One Friday evening while reading a short devotional to her she started to cry. I tried to comfort her but she just continued to cry.
Quickly, I looked over what had just been read and realized it had referred to Nicodemus and it was this point she had begun to cry. Mom often referred to herself as being a Nicodemus. Doing and saying all the right things without ever having truly establishing a personal relationship with her creator and maker of the world. On December 27th, 1958 she fully gave her life to God in the morning and the married my father that evening. She was 37 at the time and three years later I was born.
This encounter with her happened in June 2013, then in late September of that same year I gave this sermon which came from that Friday evening worship in the quiet of her room. She passed away late April 2014. I adapted a portion of this sermon for the sermonette at her funeral.
Please accept my apologies for the length for this is by far the longest post I have made. This is the actual transcript of that sermon. For Nicodemus’ story to make any sense you have to talk about John chapter 2 and those events being the reason for Nicodemus’ midnight encounter with Christ.
Scripture Reading: “Then The Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.’ So Moses made a bronze serpent and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.” Numbers 21:8 – 9
The Jewish nation was exceedingly proud of their piety. They rejoiced over their temple and regarded a word spoken in its disfavor as blasphemy. The religious leaders rigorously participated in the ceremonies connected with it, but their love of money had overruled their scruples. They were scarcely aware how far they had wandered from the original purpose of the service instituted by God Himself to point the people to a time when He would be the Lamb slain upon a cross.
It was the spring of 28 AD, time for the yearly Passover. As Jesus walked into Jerusalem he was virtually unknown. Over the last few months he had left Nazareth, been baptized by John the Baptizer, and a handful of the eventual 12 disciples had started to follow Jesus. Most recently he had turned water into wine which the steward of the wedding called a superior wine. “For it was customary to give the good wine first, but you have saved the best for last.” Thus began the illustration in the life of Christ. The gift of Christ to the marriage feast was a symbol. The water represented baptism; the wine, the shedding of His blood for the sins of the world. The cup that was given to the governor of the feast symbolized His work for their salvation.
As was customary Jesus and his fellow countrymen made their way to the temple for Passover.
Over the last 18 years we know virtually nothing of Jesus’ life. It was during another visited to the temple at the age of 12 that He learned of His role in His Father’s business. Then over the last six months, Jesus had been baptized, temped in the wilderness, had a few men begin to follow him as a rabbi and turned the water into wine at the wedding in Cana.
Because of the great distances traveled by many of the visitors it has become customary for the merchants to trade coins of every land into temple coins which could then be used to purchase animals to be used during Passover time for sacrifices. Instead of these merchants selling and trading their goods in some other part of the city, they had set up shop in the temple, making it easier for temple visitors to exchange his money and purchase his sacrifice.
The moneychangers dealt unfairly with the people by charging huge sums to exchange currency, then split the profits with the priests, making wealthy men of those that were to be of service to the people. Yet this wasn’t the only unfair practice that took place, for those that sold their sheep and oxen to be sacrificed also charged great sums to the weary traveler who thought he had no chance at a blessing for his family and his land unless he paid the steep prices. Once again, profits from the sale of these poor animals also lined the pocket of both seller and priest, leaving a bitter taste in the mouth of those that came to worship.
The noise from the exchange of money and sale of animals was deafening as traveler and merchant argued over the true cost of exchanging coins and the selling of animals. The noise was so great that any person actually coming for true worship could not even hear themselves think, much less receive a blessing from worship.
As we can see, the temple was no longer a place of prayer, a place to come apart from the cares of the world to seek rest and worship God. All this caused an already ritualistic service to further lose its meaning on the hearts of the people. Since it was the Passover, they knew they were obligated to exchange their money, pay the temple a half shackle as a ransom for their souls, and to purchase their animals for sacrifice. The true meaning of these services was lost thanks to dishonest practices taking place in the temple which created an unholy atmosphere ripe with religious leaders taking advantage of those they were supposed to lead.
Now as the Lamb of God climbs the temple steps he is stopped in His tracks by the glaring disrespect for the temple and the way the services were misconstrued for the benefit of others, rather than glorifying God and pointing to him as the Saviour of the world.
As Jesus nears the top of the temple steps first one person, then another and another stopped their bickering and clanking of money until an eerie deafening quiet came upon the temple and its courtyard. All eyes were fixed upon this man who had just climbed the stairs, whose eyes seemed to penetrate their very hearts. Merchants and priests, rulers, and travelers began to tremble and attempt hide their faces from the eyes of the man at the top of the stairs but they could not look away from this man who just entered the temple courtyard.
The Bible says Jesus went up to Jerusalem, and found in the temple those that sold oxen and sheep, and doves, and the changers of money sitting: And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers’ money, and overthrew the tables; And He said to them “Take these things hence; make not My Father’s house an house of merchandise.”
Nearby lay a scrap of cord, no doubt at one time it had held a bleating sheep as it waited to be sold but now in the hands of this man it seemed as it were a fiery sword. It touched no man physically, but all that stood and watched trembled with fear, as it piercing strands seemed to penetrate their soles. Each crack of that rope now turned whip seemed to emphasize the emptiness of their hearts and souls.
Quickly the moneychangers left their tables, the merchants selling their animal and goods left, their animals following of their own free will. This man with cord in hand turns over the tables of the moneychangers the coins clanging on the marble floor. Soon the temple lay quiet, and then the sound of praying was heard. The squeals of delight as a little boys and girls laughed at the frightened look on their father’s face. The children had nothing to fear and saw in Jesus something different, pure and inviting.
It was upon cleansing of the temple that Christ first announced himself as the messiah and started his earthly mission.
Slowly the temple came back to life; not with the hustle and bustle of merchant and dealer, but with the sound of worship and praise. The laughter of children as they played and sang their favorite songs of praise to the creator of this world, who stood before them shrouded in humanity.
Soon the sick, the lame, the infirmed, and weak of mind were coming to the temple and the one who just a little while before chased the rabble away, now with tears in his eye, talked to and healed them. Words of encouragement were spoken to each person or family as they stopped by the temple to worship, sacrifice their animals, and lift their prayers to God.
Soon the priests and merchants crept back to the temple, not bringing their wares to be bartered or sold, but to ask Him, “by what sign do you show to us since you do these things?”
Jesus gave a fantastic answer in that he said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
When the children of Israel had returned from their Babylonian captivity, Zerrubable had rebuilt the temple, though certainly not with the same splendor and beauty of Solomon’s temple. However, over the years as with all buildings it fell into disrepair. Then Caesar the Roman ruler had appointed Herod King over the Jews. He was not the one who should have been king for he really wasn’t a descendant of David, and he wasn’t even a full blooded Jew or even a true follower of the Jewish faith. Nevertheless, in order to solidify his rule over the people and to be accepted by those he ruled, he decided to rebuild the temple and Jerusalem. It was now a beautiful building. In all it took 46 years for the rebuilding of the temple to take place, and somehow during the rebuilding process it became known as Herod’s temple. It was a most beautiful temple, so beautiful that in 70 AD it would be completely destroyed as Roman soldiers dismantled and fired it to remove the inlaid gold and jewels.
“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” These words would later be used against him at his trial. They were misunderstood at the beginning of his ministry and continued to be misunderstood even at the end of his earthly ministry. Jesus was saying that in the process of three days, the temple would be destroyed or that the sacrificing of animals in commemoration of his death would cease to exist. In its place, when Christ was resurrected, he would set up a new temple, but not a physical temple. Rather, the temple would be made in the hearts of all men and women that invited Jesus into their hearts. Verse 21 of John chapter 2 says, “But he was speaking of the temple of His body.” As the Apostle Paul writes. “Know you not that you are the temple of the living God.” I Corinthians 3:16 and II Corinthians 6:19
Standing at a distance and watching all this was a man. This man had heard the preaching of John the Baptist and witnessed the Baptism of this man who had chased the moneychangers and merchants from the temple. He had heard John the Baptist call this Man “the Lamp of God who takes away the sins of the world.” He had watched in the temple at a distance, heard the words Jesus spoke to the people and witnessed the miracles of Jesus as Jesus comforted the people, healed their sick and met the spiritual needs of the people. He had witnessed all this and determined that he would like an interview with this man named Jesus.
John chapter 1 verses 4 and 5 tell us that “In Him, (Jesus, the Christ) was life and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.”
And so this man, a Pharisee, teacher and member of the Sanhedrin named Nicodemus under the cover of darkness, from the darkness of his pious heart came looking for Jesus who is the light of men. Nicodemus, upon hearing the words of Jesus spoken in the temple had himself gone back and searched the scriptures and was convinced that this man who had so recently chased moneychangers, merchants and priests from the temple was indeed sent from God. But, he fell short of actually calling him the Messiah and instead boldly said to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”
His words were designed to express and to invite confidence in himself; but they really expressed his unbelief. He did not acknowledge Jesus to be the Messiah, but only a teacher sent from God. These words were spoken by Nicodemus, with the desire to enter into a theological debate with Jesus.
Jesus saw through the heart of Nicodemus and understood it was not theology that his man before him needed but a regeneration of the heart. And today when Jesus looks into the hearts of the thousands that follow Him, he says, “It is not a debate about theology that you need but a regeneration of the heart.”
How often when we meet others and they say, “I see you are a follower of Jesus.” Yet unlike Jesus, who presented himself as the means of regenerating the heart, we present theology. What does the Bible say? “If I (that would be Christ) If I be lifted up, I will draw all men to me.” I realize the theology of any church should draw all men to Christ, but when that person comes to us and says, I see you are a follower of Christ, place before that person, the one who is the light of the world, Christ Crucified and only Christ crucified. For he will draw all men to himself and then perhaps in due time there will be the opportunity to present theology to them. So, to those that are in darkness who come to us with darkness in their heart, lift up Christ and Christ only.
Jesus said, “Verily Verily I say unto you, Unless a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus, coming to talk theology, now hears talk of being born again. Being a religious leader, and teacher he had no doubt studied with individuals that were not of the Jewish faith. He had reasoned with them and converted them. They, these heathen peoples, upon accepting Judaism were called born again.
Now, here is Jesus telling Nicodemus, that he must be born again. For the pious Jew that Nicodemus was he assuredly was shocked at what was just spoken by Jesus and responded with a mixture of contempt and sarcasm, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
Christ fails to take the bait offered by Nicodemus and answers, “Most assuredly, I say to you, Unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’”
Then Christ, as he so often did during his ministry, turns to nature to illustrate a point. “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but you cannot tell from where it comes and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the spirit.” We often call it sudden conversion, but the truth is that it was the wooing of the Holy Spirit; a little here, a little there a process over time. First one person and then another, until like a plant it burst through the ground. We do not understand the mystery of the seed or the mystery of the wind. We can certainly see their results, but like the wind, we do not know from where it begins or where it goes. So it is with our contact with people. We do not see where it will go, but we can certainly see the result.
Nicodemus, asked Jesus, “How can these things be?” Here is a learned teacher of the law, a religious leader and member of the Sanhedrin asking, “How can these things be true?”
There was no excuse for the blindness of Israel in regard to the work of regeneration. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Isaiah had written, “We are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousness are as filthy rags.” David had prayed, “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.” And through Ezekiel the promise had been given, “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put My Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in My statutes.” Isaiah 64:6; Psalm 51:10; Ezekiel 36:26, 27.
Jesus answered, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?” Jesus continued by saying, “Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness.”
We need to stop right there. Notice in this text from the New King James which are capitalized, “We speak what We know and Testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness.” So many of our modern day translations miss this, by not capitalizing each time the word We is used and the one time Our is used. The word We used these three times signifies We as in “God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.” And the use of the word Our is to signify that all three have been echoing the same thing since the fall of Adam, until that very moment that Jesus spoke to Nicodemus. And that same message spoken to our first parents is the same message that is being echoed by Christ’s faithful followers down through the ages.
You see, those that live in darkness, come to Christ out of the darkness of their heart do not understand things that are spiritually discerned. Sometimes it is difficult enough to understand that which is of an earthly nature. If we have trouble understanding things of an earthly nature, how can we understand spiritual things?
But, as Jesus talked the Holy Spirit was working upon the heart of Nicodemus. Nicodemus had read these scriptures. The same scriptures quoted just a few minutes ago had many times been read by the listener with a clouded mind; now he began to comprehend their meaning. He saw that the most rigid obedience to the mere letter of the law was not enough to allow man to enter the kingdom of heaven. In the estimation of men, his life had been just and honorable; but in the presence of Christ he felt that his heart was unclean, and his life unholy.
Then Jesus drives home the point by using a symbol of the serpent being raised by Moses upon a pole. A symbol that, that this great religious leader and teacher could easily understand. Jesus said, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”
When the fiery serpents bit and poisoned the people Moses, by the instructions of God, had brass formed into the likeness of the serpents and then lifted up before the people. Those that looked upon the serpent made of brass were healed. So it is with each one of us, for we have all been bitten by the fiery serpent of sin. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness so must the son of man be lifted up. There was no actual saving power in the serpent made of brass other than it being representative, a likeness of the one that caused their trouble.
As the image made in the likeness of the destroying serpents was lifted up for their healing, so One made “in the likeness of sinful flesh” was to be their Redeemer. Romans 8:3. Many of the Israelites regarded the sacrificial service as having in itself the ability to set them free from sin. God desired to teach them that it had no more value than that serpent of brass for it was Christ only who took sinful nature upon himself, it is only through Christ when he is lifted up can that our sins can be forgiven.
Verse 15 continues that thought by saying “that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” Then, comes the most popular verse in the Bible, John 3:16. I am sure all us gathered here this morning can repeat it for memory and perhaps because it is so popular we have actually missed the point. The text says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
“That whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
For example, the evidence exists that one George Washington was the first President of our nation. There is even enough evidence for me to believe that Abraham Lincoln was our 16th President, and perhaps the best president this country has ever had. There is evidence for me to believe that Barak Obama is our president at this time. I can certainly believe all these things and like so many of our founding fathers of this country I can even believe there is a God in heaven. That you, me and those that founded this country believe there is a God in heaven no more assures me of eternal life than believing anyone of our former Presidents can grant me eternal life. Please stay with me here for this is very important.
You see we need to go back and look at the original language to really get the full impact of John 3:16. In reality verse 16 is not to be read on its own, it really is part of a bigger thought as presented by verses 14 – 17. These verses should always be read together. Also, the key is to better understandings these verses especially John 3:16 is to better understand the word “believe.” The original text added the additional word “has” and it should read this way, John 3:16, “that whosoever has believe in Him should not perish.”
But adding the word has does not fit with our English language and really doesn’t describe what is actually being said. The original word used for believe is has faith. “Whosoever has faith in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. But even this does not fully describe the passage correctly. The original word which we interpret “Believe or has faith” implies to cleave to, or fasten on to. To grasp hold of in the way Jacob grabbed hold of the pre-incarnate Christ on the night he spent wrestling with Christ. Jacob would not let go until he had been blessed. This is what these verses are saying. So let’s start again at verse 14 let us read it together.
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, That whosoever has faith in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever grasps hold of Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.
Now add verse 18, “He who grasps hold of Him is not condemned but he who does not grasp hold of him is condemned all ready. Because he has not faith (has not grabbed hold) in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”
John then bounces back to the prologue of his book on the life of Christ by going back to his theme of light and darkness. Christ is the light of this world, who has come into this world to light for men the path of salvation. Yet men love darkness rather than light for their very nature is evil and the light exposes the evil hidden within the soul. But to him who does cleave unto Christ, Grasps hold of Christ with all their heart the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done of God.”
This morning I ask you, do you just believe in Jesus, or do you have faith in Jesus, a faith that gasps hold of Jesus with all our might and then cleaving to Him, so that when people see us and the deeds we do, they say, “That has been done of God.”
Their meeting ended. Nicodemus retired to his house, but he kept an ever-watchful eye on the events surrounding Jesus and his teachings. He studied the Scriptures with renewed passion. At the foot of Calvary, Nicodemus saw Jesus being lifted up on that pole before the crowd. The words spoken by Jesus upon the Mount of Olives under the cover of darkness those words of Jesus now fully illuminated and filled Nicodemus’s soul. From that, moment on Nicodemus not only believed, but he cleaved to Jesus, grasped onto Jesus with all his might.
Later that day, Nicodemus along with Joseph of Aramathea lowered Jesus off that pole and placed him in a tomb. For Nicodemus, the Pious teacher, Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin who fully understood Jewish Ceremonial Law, this act of helping lower Jesus off the cross shows how his heart had been regenerated and fully grasped on to Jesus. And when Jesus rose from the dead, the words of Jesus spoken in the temple, that in three days I will rebuild this temple, hit home to Nicodemus and he became what verse 21 of John 3 says. But, he who does, “Does what, cleaves to Christ, “the truth comes to light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have done of God.
This morning, I ask you and I ask myself: are we cleaving to Christ? Are we grasping onto Christ? Are our actions such that we would want them brought to the light of day? Do people say of us, “That has been done of God.” Or are we merely believers, living in the darkness of our hearts as Nicodemus was that night when he came to see Jesus? Are we lovers of darkness rather than lovers of light?
Is our message, Christ Crucified? Christ said, “If I be lifted up I will draw all men to me.” Are we lifting Him up? Are we drawing all men to He who is the light of the world?
Shall we pray